Doctor Norman Goodman (Dustin Hoffman) is a psychologist with special experience in dealing with disaster survivors, specifically those of plane crashes, and he has been helicoptered out to this ocean location to see to another group of survivors. Or that's what he believes, for once he arrives everyone is curiously reluctant to bring him to see any of them, and he rightly suspects they don't exist, confirmed when he is taken into a room below decks and briefed by Captain Barnes (Peter Coyote). However, what he is told strains his credulousness to the limit: he has been called to bring his learning to bear not on something from this planet, but whatever is inside a spacecraft on the seabed...
Despite the failure of James Cameron's 1989 sci-fi bomb The Abyss, there were quite a number of imitators, but Sphere had to be one of the furthest after the fact, and most foolhardy given that more or less all of those in that bracket had been financial and/or critical disasters. Which was precisely what happened here, after a shoot that neglected to sort out various gaps in the script, it was rushed into release off the back of the hit nineteen-nineties movies based on Michael Crichton books, yet some were wont to point out it appeared to be trying to cash in on the success of sleeper horror hit Event Horizon from the previous summer, which had more or less the same plot, albeit Crichton was first.
Event Horizon was set in space, and Sphere was set under the ocean, and the former was a PG-13 suitable for families while Event Horizon was purposefully violent and gory and had to be cut to attain an R certificate, but they were both sci-fi slasher flicks at heart, with an array of inventive deaths (and near-deaths) for their characters to suffer, it's simply that Sphere was less bloodthirsty. It did feature the bizarre sight of rapper Queen Latifah in a diving suit being attacked by killer jellyfish, so had that novelty in its arsenal, but even when the explanation for all this death and destruction was found, it was so vague and handwaving that pinning it down would only lead to frustration.
That's because they had not pinned it down in the screenplay, adapted by once-promising director Kurt Wimmer but penned by other hands, and though it wasn't a million miles away from what happened in the 1987 novel, it didn't take a keen literary mind to ascertain this didn't feature one of Crichton's killer concepts. Or rather it did, but only in the sense that he killed off most of his characters, which the film was less keen on doing, at least not explicitly, so the nastiness was on a level most kids in double figures could take, unlike Event Horizon. You may, while watching Sphere, wish they had been more enthusiastic about the scares, but instead it turned its focus on the inner lives of the experts the titular sphere was examining, as was the case with too many science fiction conceits of this decade.
It wouldn't be a proper sci-fi movie of the nineties if the characters had not grown as people by the end of it, as if the talents involved had taken the presence of psychologist Deanna Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation to heart and believed that every encounter with an alien presence, be it a huge asteroid heading Earthward or a message from deepest space, was only worth its salt if it had been a learning experience. This was a bit rich in a movie that consciously ripped off the giant squid sequence from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, only refused to splash the cash on the monster itself, as if the human mind was the greatest presence to overcome, no matter that the sphere was turning those minds to its own mysterious and murderous ends. There was a fairly starry cast here, none of whom were too bad, considering, Sharon Stone working up urgency and Samuel L. Jackson concealing something behind a patina of reason, but while enigmatic was all very well, there was a difference between that and unfinished to our (or their) satisfaction. Music by Elliot Goldenthal.